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Reflections on consulting – Parts 1, 2 and 3 – network, network, network!

December 16, 2009

Over the past few years, I was a full-time math/stat consultant in a five-person company.  Through 2008, most of my work came from my colleagues, while in 2009 most of it came from my own contacts.  Now that I have a “proper job”, I’m noting down some of my experiences and thoughts here.

If you’re thinking of consulting, you may find Alan Weiss’s books “Getting Started in Consulting” and “Million Dollar Consulting” useful.  Barley and Kunda’s “Gurus, Hired Guns and Warm Bodies” is an interesting ethnographic exploration of independent consultants and their lifestyles.

Why start with networking?  Why not how much to charge, what languages / skills to learn, or why or whether to be a consultant at all?  These are all important topics, which I’ll talk about later, but subsidiary to the most important one – networking.  For your network can give you much better advice on all of these things than I can, and they can actually get you contracts as well.

Everyone says that you need to network and meet potential clients, or people who can lead you to clients.  The part they don’t say [or at least the part I wasn’t paying attention to] is that this very often leads nowhere, which can be dispiriting.  But you do have to try it, as the benefits are large and unpredictable.  One example – after I mentioned to a former manager that I was looking for new contracts, he put me in touch with another consultant, who put me in touch with his partner, who passed my name on to another consultant who was looking for subcontractors, and who took me on for a lucrative engagement.  The catches are that this chain of events took about a year, and that many other possible chains didn’t go anywhere.  Imagine playing a slot machine where you had to come back in a year to see if you’d won anything.  How long would Vegas last under these conditions?

Surprisingly, I often found other consultants to be the most useful part of my network.  It seems that this should not be so – aren’t we all competing for work?  Well, yes and no.  Sometimes your fellow consultant might pass something on to you because they’re already committed to something else, or they don’t have quite the right skills or interests to do it.  You can do the same for them to.  It’s similar to how businesses in the same field will often find it advantageous to cluster together, in the same region, city, or even block.

What are good networking venues for math/stat consultants?  Conferences such as INFORMS or the AEA are possibilities, though I found these to be too dominated by academics.  Other more practical conferences often have forbidding fees.  One promising avenue is user group meetings for different languages, such as SAS or R.  If you can put together an intelligent presentation for such a group, so much the better.  There is an as yet unfilled niche for meetups of math/stat practitioners, who may often be isolated at their individual companies or consultancies and want to share experiences.

In summary:

  • Networking is the most important thing in consulting
  • But it often gives no immediately visible results
  • You should start a meetup for math / stat practitioners, so I can come to it.

P.S. Morrissey’s counterpoint to networking below – “We hate it when our friends become successful”


The Panglossian Presidency

December 2, 2008

A loyal reader asks my view on the reappointment of Gates to Defence.  With some repurposing of part of my argument on Biden, and a little help from Leibniz:

Of course, your objectives and Obama’s differ.  You may be concerned about the economy, the environment, world peace.  He is, as a reasonable first approximation, concerned only with winning reelection in 2012.  But, contra McCain-Palin, these differing objectives need not cause a conflict.

How could you fail to support a decision of Obama’s?  There are three possible reasons:

1) You might prefer that Obama lose in 2012.  That is, of course, your prerogative, and not yet treasonous.

2) You might want Obama to win, and be concerned that his decision makes that less likely.  Of course, any President can end up in a bubble isolated from reality (Bush on Iraq, Clinton on healthcare).  On the other hand, you have your own bubble, and haven’t talked to as many voters in swing states, so it’s not clear that your judgment is any better.

3) You might accept an increased risk of a Republican win in 2012, to trade off against one of your personal objectives (e.g. end to Cuban embargo, U.S. troops out of Iraq, avoiding runaway global warming and the end of human civilisation).  Fair enough, as long as your expected utility calculation includes possibly 4-8 years of President Palin.  Does it still come out positive?

So, we don’t care about (1), (2) is unlikely and (3) is dangerous.  All of which leads us to the conclusion that you really have no good reason to oppose any decision by the President-Elect.  So if Clinton is appointed to State, that is for the best.  If Gates is kept on at Defence, that must be for the best.  And if Cheney were to be appointed to the EPA, that would be for the best also.  For we have shown that everything is for the best with this best of all possible Presidents.

Bonus!  “Best of all possible worlds” from Bernstein’s Candide below:

There’s no one as Irish as Barack Obama

November 10, 2008